An account of HMS VERNON (R)
The Admiralty Torpedo, Mining & Electrical Training Establishment
at Roedean School For Girls, Brighton
May 1941 - June 1945
PART ONE - THE MOVE TO
August 1940 enemy bombing of Portsmouth Harbour forced H.M.S.
VERNON, a busy shore based training establishment, to be dispersed
to other sites around the country - Scotland, the West Country, and
areas along the South Coast. Roedean School, Brighton, East Sussex
was chosen to become the new home of the Headquarters and Central
Administration sections of HMS VERNON, together with the torpedo and
mine warfare schools and associated training departments.
In the early spring of
1941 Roedean School for Girls, Brighton was selected by the
Admiralty to become home to H.M.S. VERNON, the Royal Navy's torpedo,
mining and electrical training establishment. The advance party,
under command of Lieutenant J. R. Carr, arrived at Roedean on April
Roedean School For Girls, Brighton.
Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN
It has passed
into naval lore that before the navy moved into the school the
Captain insisted that all of the female pupils should leave; it was
rumoured that some of the sixth formers were still in residence. The
mistress in charge, reportedly replied "my girls will be all right;
they've got it up here" tapping her head" to which the Captain
answered "Madam, it matters not where your girls have it, rest
assured my sailors will find it!" This makes for a good yarn, but is
of course all fiction as the dates prove.
At this time part of
the school, number three house, was in use by the Army which had
moved in shortly after the girls' school had evacuated to Keswick in
the Lake District, where teaching resumed from September 5th 1940.
Initially a contingent of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arrived
for training, followed by the Queen's Royal Regiment, then four
Canadian regiments and the London Scottish, who were in residence
when the Navy arrived. Number three House was the only part of the
school properly 'Blacked out' against air raids at the time, so work
began immediately to prepare the remaining buildings for occupation,
contract labour being brought in to complete the work. As
accommodation became ready for occupation Lieutenant Carr telephoned
Portsmouth to send another batch of ratings to Roedean, often on a
daily basis; all of this work and moving in being undertaken before
a firm decision about who would actually occupy the site had
officially been taken.
The Army was reluctant
to vacate the site but a compromise was reached - the Navy would
occupy the parts of the school not already in use by the Army - a
situation which was not to last for long though, the Admiralty
putting forward the best case for ownership in Whitehall. The Army
was shortly to receive a message which read; "unless alternative
accommodation has been arranged, number of tents required is to be
indented for" - this was the first they knew of their immanent
eviction! They eventually relocated to 'The Olde Place' in Rottingdean, a short distance along the coast.
Roedean was officially
commissioned as HMS VERNON (R) on May 3rd 1941 as the Headquarters
of the Admiralty torpedo, mining & electrical training establishment
under the command of Captain Brian Egerton, RN. The establishment
provided intensive training courses in torpedoes, mines, depth
charges and shipboard electrics. Note: (R) denoted VERNON at 'Roedean', with
VERNON (P) being the residual elements of the
establishment at Gun Wharf, Portsmouth.
building at Roedean School has its main entrance facing the south,
with four north/south oriented 'Houses' these being numbered 1 - 4;
viewed from the cliff top house numbers run left to right. In front
of the main entrance is an open area referred to as the quadrangle,
at its south edge is a stone balustrade offering an uninterrupted
view across the grounds and along the coast road to Brighton and Rottingdean.
The area of the balustrade was referred to by the navy as the 'Quarterdeck', a revered area within a shore establishment,
the site of the flagstaff flying the Naval Ensign - the Quarterdeck
must be saluted by naval personnel when passing as a mark of
respect. The School's quadrangle doubled as a parade ground, the
site of Sunday divisions (parade of ship's company before church) at
which the men and women of HMS VERNON would be addressed by the
Captain and inspected.
end of the first year, more space was needed, both for accommodation
and instruction; few rooms at Roedean were large enough to hold
lectures for 200 men with the exception of the main hall, the gym,
and at first the art school which later became part of the Wardroom.
Suitable premises were found by requisitioning St Dunstan's Home for
the Blind at Ovingdean. This new building had opened in October
1938, but like the Girl's School a quarter mile down the road, the
organisation had been evacuated to Church Stratton, Shropshire in
1940. This site was used for several purposes, including an
electrical instruction 'school', HMS VERNON's central pay office,
sub-lieutenants' sleeping quarters and the ratings canteen and bar.
St Dunstan's Home for the Blind at
Ovingdean. Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN
From 10th September,
1942 members of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) began
arriving to take the six week long Seaman Torpedoman's course, up to
sixteen WRNS ratings a week,. This was a new specialisation for
women serving in the RN as WRNS personnel were increasingly filling
shore based roles in order to free up men for sea duty. New premises
were requisitioned at 90 Marine Parade as instructional classrooms
for these courses. In the first year of this new course 684 WRNS (T)
had completed the course, only nine failed.
Torpedo Wrens at HMS Caroline, Belfast June 1945 - Photo:
Leading WRNS (T) Margaret 'Peggy' Ellis, the first Torpedo Wren to
join HMS Caroline after passing her course at VERNON (R) in November
CLICK HERE to read Peggy
Ellis's memories of training at Brighton
number of personnel at Roedean was to rise steadily over the course
of the war; rising from approximately 150 officers, 1,000 ratings
and 100 Wrens during first year, increasing to about 250 officers -
including 19 WRNS Officers, 1,500 ratings and up to 600 Wrens per
year. Numbers would have been even higher had the Mining Instruction
School not moved back to VERNON (P) in August 1943. Over the course
of its four years in Brighton VERNON (R) requisitioned further sites
in the Brighton area, both for accommodation and instructional
purposes, and these were:
The garage area of the 'Grand' Hotel, Brighton; used for High Power
The 'Dreadnought' garage (22 Victoria Terrace, Hove); Torpedo
14 Royal Crescent, Brighton; WRNS only Torpedo instruction
St. Dunstan's Ovingdean, Junior officers accommodation.
John Howard House, Old People's Home, Kemptown, Brighton; for WRNS
quarters (now Brighton Steiner School)
No. 22 Lewes Crescent, 7 Arundel Terrace, and 90 Marine Parade,
Brighton; additional WRNS quarters
The Children's Summer Home, Northgate House, Rottingdean, another St
Dunstan's property used at one time to provide holidays for the
young children of St Dunstaners requisitioned for chief and petty
Marine Gate, private flat complex, Brighton; unoccupied flats
requisitioned for overflow officers' accommodation and married officer's quarters.
John Howard House, Kemptown, Brighton - used as WRNS Quarters.
Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN
Before the end of 1942
Admiral Sir Charles Little visited Roedean; as Second Sea Lord he
had been instrumental securing Roedean for VERNON. The establishment
had no bugler or band, so the relevant musical salutation was played
over the tannoy system from a radio-gramophone. The Electrical
Artificer working the apparatus was so excited that he forgot to
lift the needle from the record after it had played the 'Alert', and
to everyone's horror the loudspeaker system began blaring "God Save
the King" In his speech the Admiral said he had received many
welcomes in his time, but this was the first occasion he had
received a Royal welcome!
Three class photographs from torpedo courses
held at Roedean. Images curtsey of Chris McBrien.
Click to see larger image.
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